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Enrollment BOOMING at private colleges UC, CSU budget woes, larger student pool and increasing competition are all part of the equation
By Michelle Maitre STAFF WRITER Sunday, November 21, 2004
An old adage holds that whenever a door closes, a window opens somewhere else. So perhaps it follows that private colleges in the Bay Area and beyond have enrolled banner numbers of freshmen this year, a phenomenon some have attributed to budget cuts and admissions turmoil in the state's public universities.
University of the Pacific in Stockton welcomed 885 new freshmen this fall, making it the largest freshmen class in the college's 153-year history. St. Mary's College in Moraga enrolled 611 freshmen, its second-largest class. Applications to Santa Clara University jumped 20 percent, and about 17,000 new students inquired about the educational program at Oakland's Mills College -- a staggering increase over the number of inquiries the campus received last year.
"We had a 50 percent increase in inquiries and an 18 percent increase in our first-year students, so between the graduate and undergraduate programs, we're looking at record-breaking enrollment for the college," said Julie Richardson, Mills' vice president of enrollment management. Mills, where all the undergraduates are women, enrolled 136 freshmen this year, up from 115 last year. According to a campus survey, a number of the new students turned to Mills as an alternative to the California State University and University of California systems, which grappled this year with unprecedented enrollment challenges.
First, CSU and UC were told not to plan for any enrollment growth because the deficit-ridden state couldn't afford it. Then, both systems were told to divert 10 percent of their incoming 2004 freshmen - about 7,400 students total - into community colleges for the first two years, with the promise the students would be able to transfer back into the four-year systems after completing undergraduate courses. In the end, however, the state Legislature nixed the community college diversion plan, and in August ponied up enough money to allow CSU and UC to enroll all the diverted students.
Still, not every student was able to get into the campus they wanted and some were asked to defer their entrance until the spring semester. A fair number of Mill's inquiry pool was caught in the loop, Richardson said. According to a campus survey of about 400 students from the inquiry and applicant pool, 17 percent of students said they had been admitted to UC but asked to attend a community college first, Richardson said. ``We like to think we're doing a lot of things right (to attract new students), as well, and I think we are, but it's pretty clear from our research that part of what was going on in the California systems is having an impact on students and that's having an impact on us," Richardson said.
Admissions officials at other private universities say their intuition tells them their numbers are part of the same phenomenon.
``If somebody were to say to me, do you think you were influenced by the state and UC, I would say, yeah, intellectually, I think we were. We had to have been, but I just don't have the data to back that up," said Michael Beseda, vice provost for enrollment at St. Mary's College, where this year's freshman class of 611 was bested only by the incoming class of 2002, with 645 students.
Santa Clara University officials had the same hunch.
``In psychology, we always learn that correlation doesn't equal causation, but I find it hard to believe that this year, when the state systems were talking about budget cuts, that message didn't get out to the students and the high school counselors," said Kevin Lum Lung, associate dean of undergraduate admissions at Santa Clara University.
Santa Clara received 7,649 applications for the 2004 freshman class, compared to 6,388 in 2003, Lum Lung said.
``The last increase we saw that would be even close to that was from '96 to '97, when applications went from 5,000 to 5,800," Lum Lung said. ``It never crossed the 7,000 barrier and no one in this office ever guessed over 7,000 students would apply."
Lum Lung suspects there are several reasons for the spike, including a larger population of high school students who are, in general, more interested in attending college than previous generations, as well as increased competition for spaces that sees first-time freshmen nationwide applying to an ever widening circle of colleges.
Public sector troubles are the least of the reasons interest in private institutions is increasing, said Jonathan Brown, president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities. Brown said students and their parents are becoming increasingly aware of the comparative value of private schools, where the sticker price for an education is higher than public schools' but the financial aid offers are generous. Students can also count on graduating from a private school in four years, versus five or even six in public schools.
Those were the reasons Braden Pivirotto said he chose Santa Clara University over state schools this year. Pivirotto, 19, of Pleasant Hill, said he never thought he'd be able to afford a private school. But after a little research, he found that his scholarships, combined with financial aid from the university, meant he got a better offer from Santa Clara - with annual tuition, fees and room and board estimated at $37,000 a year - than he did from UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara or Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he was also accepted.
Estimates of the annual cost of attendance at the public schools, including tuition and room and board, range from about $14,000 to about $19,000 a year, depending on the school, although low-income students can count on generous financial aid packages from the state.
``Before, you'd have the UCs and they were just completely cheap. It was ridiculous," said Pivirotto, a College Park High School graduate. ``But with the budget cuts, they couldn't offer me very much financial aid. All told, Pivirotto said he's getting $21,000 from Santa Clara, including an athletic scholarship and a grant he doesn't have to pay back. The campus also offered him a subsidized loan, and he received a number of private scholarships that are defraying costs. His only offer from the state schools, he said, was about $2,000 from UC Santa Barbara.
``Now we have these private schools ending up being less expensive because they have more to give," Pivirotto said.
Financial aid programs and a quick time to graduation have been an incentive that helped lure students to Pacific in Stockton, said Provost Phil Gilbertson, who, like Brown, downplayed the impact of the public's troubles on burgeoning enrollment.
``Marketing (of the campus) has been a bigger factor than I think anything else," Gilbertson said. ``Students who come here are so satisfied. We say we provide personalized learning, and that's the reality here. If that were not the case, we wouldn't see the increase."
The enrollment picture at the public universities is expected to be rosier next year, officials say, because a funding compact with the governor promises money for enrollment growth and other programs.
Ultimately, Brown said public and private institutions will need to work together to meet the state's growing higher education needs.
``I don't think this is an us versus them problem," Brown said. ``The ultimate problem California has to deal with is how do we accommodate this (growing) band of students in ways that will meet their needs. What we need to do is think about ways that encourage the broadest range of students to choose among the broadest range of institutions."